MEET JOHN DOE (1941) / A FAREWELL TO ARMS (1932) is a double-feature of two of Gary Cooper's most famous movies, released by Marengo Films:
MEET JOHN DOE is Frank Capra's darkly comic satire. Recently-fired journalist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) writes, as her final story, a fabricated piece about "John Doe" -- a man threatening to commit suicide because of all of the injustices of the world. When the story becomes a sensation, the paper rehires Ann and convinces a homeless former baseball pitcher (Gary Cooper) to impersonate John Doe, beginning a new political movement and possibly bringing real changes to the working class.
In A FAREWELL TO ARMS, Cooper plays Lt. Frederic Henry, an American serving in the Italian ambulance corps during World War I who falls in love with Catherine Barkley (Helen Hayes), a beautiful British nurse. Despite obstacles placed before them, the two try to maintain their relationship, enduring many hardships along the way. Based on the Ernest Hemingway novel, the film uses the plot of romance to question the wisdom and nature of war.
Both of these classics are wonderful films and are highly recommended for everyone. They're extremely well-written, with wonderful performances. Because these two films are in the public domain, there are many different releases of them on DVD. Is this specific double-feature worth adding to your collection? Read on...
MEET JOHN DOE uses a very clean print and has very acceptable picture quality. Because this is not a major studio DVD, you should not expect a flawless transfer, but it is a very pleasing, film-like presentation. By way of comparison, this release is significantly better than the Madacy release and is virtually identical to the Delta/Laserlight release. The Delta DVD is slightly brighter, but I found this Marengo release to be more pleasing. However, without a direct A/B comparison, you are unlikely to notice much difference between this version and the Delta. Both DVDs have very good transfers, with little compression artifacts visible.
The print used for A FAREWELL TO ARMS is not in as good a shape as I would have hoped. While not unwatchable, it definitely has its share of damage to the print -- flecks, scratches, and dirt are evident, especially at the beginning of reels. However, other than the print condition, this is a clear and watchable transfer. Not surprisingly, this is still much better than the Madacy release. However, the Delta/Laserlight release uses a much better print and is the best of the three transfers. Unfortunately, Delta decided to include a company logo (or "bug") in the lower-right corner of the screen every ten minutes or so during the film. For that reason alone, I prefer the Marengo to the Delta, even with the minor print wear.
Both of these films are properly presented in the full-frame aspect ratio. In the final tally, both films are very watchable transfers. You won't be amazed by the quality, but you won't be disgusted either -- unlike most "budget" releases of public domain material.
Both films are presented in surprisingly clear mono tracks. There is some slight distortion and hiss, but much less than I'd expect from a public domain release. Again, the audio beats both Madacy versions and is very similar to the Delta releases.
There are no extras on this title. (But, unfortunately, there is a 1-2 minute commercial for Marengo Films at the start of the DVD that I was unable to skip past using my remote.)
So, should you get this DVD? That's a real tough question to answer, especially with the variety of releases out there. Certainly the films are wonderful and well worth your time. Since you get 2 movies on 1 DVD, the Marengo makes for an economical rental if you are viewing the films for the first time. If you are going to buy the films, price may become the factor to consider. Buying the two Delta DVDs will give you a very similar viewing experience (with a few extras, too), and costs less than buying the single Marengo title.
However, if you are looking for the absolute best quality DVD (and if these films follow the same pattern as other public domain releases), the best DVDs will likely be the Image Entertainment releases. Unfortunately, I was unable to confirm the quality of the Image DVDs (my copies are still on backorder), but other Image titles have shown me that they often use similar prints as Delta, but transfer the films more cleanly and with more care.
But, as a rental or inexpensive introduction to these two Gary Cooper classics, the Marengo DVD is a bargain. This is definitely recommended to all film buffs.